“What’s there to see and do in Milan?,” I was asked. That depends, of course, on a few important variables, such as personal interests, length of stay, and whether, or not, it’s your first time in Milan. If the latter is the case, I hope you’ve planned at least three full days to visit the city…and you’ll still only scratch the surface! Believe it, or not!
For special events...More......
...(including organ concerts on the city’s Renaissance organs) and temporary exhibits, the visitor should check at the government tourist office (once called APT, now IAT in Lombardy, at least) located in the Piazza Cairoli in front of the Sforza Castle.
The Last Supper (il Cenacolo) by Leonardo da Vinci in the refectory of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is de rigeur for a first-time visit to Milan, and reservations are necessary sometimes a couple of months in advance (http://www.cenacolovinciano.org/, +39.02.8942.1146). Do me a favor. When you go into the refectory, resist the temptation to look first at the Last Supper on the right. Force yourself to look at the Crucifixion fresco on the left. It was finished only a very short time before Leonardo’s work, but it smacks fully of the Early Renaissance style: crammed with figures (the more figures there are, the more they got paid!), everything important smashed up into the front plane, heads all on the same levels, a great attention to surface detail, etc., etc., etc. THEN look on the right at what is left of Leonardo’s masterpiece, its seeming simplicity underscoring the gravity of the moment, the attention to the psychological impact of the precise moment that Christ says, “One of you will betray me.” The contrast showing you how revolutionary Leonardo was couldn’t be more plain. Don’t miss seeing the church, itself, either: the long nave dates to the Early Renaissance period, even if from the late 15th century, while the enormous polygonal chapel—substituting the original and more typical cross shape—now forming the apse was either built by, or inspired by a design by, the famous architect Bramante, who left Milan around the time the French invaded the city (1499), and hightailed it to Rome, where he built the little San Pietro in Montorio chapel, launching the High Renaissance style. Milan had him first!!!
A few other world-renowned "do not miss" items would be these (official web sites, even if only in Italian, have been preferred, when available…if you need English, use your favorite internet search engine):
--the world-famous paintings at the Pinacoteca di Brera (Mantegna's Dead Christ, Bramante's Uomini famosi, Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin, and Piero della Francesca's Virgin and Saints, just to name a few) (http://www.brera.beniculturali.it/, in Italian)
--the world-famous works at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (Caravaggio's Fruit Basket and Raphael's full-size sketches for the School of Athens, Ambrogio De Predis' Portrait of a Woman, Leonardo's Portrait of a Musician, the Pietà and Madonna Enthroned and Saints by Bramantino, other works by post-Leonardo Lombard masters, and, on a kitsch-y note, a lock of Lucrezia Borgia's hair, for history buffs) (http://www.ambrosiana.eu/cms/visita_virtuale-417.html, for the moment in Italian, the “English” button doesn’t work)
--the world-famous works at the Sforza Castle (including the life-size equestrian marble sculpture of Bernabò Visconti by Bonino da Campione and--completely out of character for this museum that concentrates principally on Lombard art--Michelangelo's Rondanini Pietà; the painting gallery has just reopened after being renewed) (for the “Museo di arte antica”, see: http://www.milanocastello.it/ing/info.html, yeah, the version in English works!; there are other museums in the castle, as well: Egyptian art, Decorative Arts, and temporary exhibits)
--the world-famous Crucifix and Gospel book cover of Ariberto d'Intimiano, Milan's last vastly powerful "prince-archbishop" in the first half of the 11th century (in the museum of the Duomo and the treasury of the Duomo, respectively; both have other marvelous things, too), as well as the Duomo, itself, a fascinating example of a balancing act between the late International Gothic style and local Italian/Milanese architectural currents, later modified by late Renaissance post-Tridentine religious requirements by Saint Charles Borromeo's favorite architect, Pellegrini…start the exterior visit at the back, where the architecture comes from the late 14th century…the farther you move towards the front, the “younger” the architecture is, until you get to the façade finished in a historical style in the early 19th century (http://duomomilano.it/?lang=en, yeah, in English!)
--the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a marvelous and fairly early "noble" use of previously denigrated "industrial" materials of iron and glass…and you thought malls were a recent invention! (http://www.tripadvisor.it/Attraction_Review-g187849-d194342-Reviews-Galleria_Vittorio_Emanuele_II-Milan_Lombardy.html)
--the Early Christian imperial basilica of San Lorenzo, its ancient Roman colonnade, and the blocks taken from the abandoned ancient Roman arena to shore up the foundations…these are off the right hand nave under its chapel [the stairway goes down behind the altar] of Sant’Aquilino which is another “don’t miss”…even if you do have to pay to get in…it’s part of the oldest areas of the church, and dates to the 4th century A.D., and perhaps even was the intended burial place of Galla Placidia, the ancient Roman empress…her so-called “Mausoleum” in Ravenna originally wasn’t a mausoleum, and the presence of a sarcophagus reputedly containing her remains is not documented there until about the 8th, or 9th, century A.D., as I recall…notice the ancient Roman doorway between the two chapel areas, as well as the ancient Roman mosaic fragments still adorning the two chapels’ walls (don't forget that Milan was the de facto capital of the western world from the late 3rd century A.D. onward--the Edict of Constantine, fundamental for Christianity's survival and flourishing, was issued here in 313 A.D.--prior to the threat of invasions by Gauls that encouraged the court to move to Ravenna in 402 A.D.) (http://www.sanlorenzomaggiore.com/new_website/, in Italian)
--the basilica of Sant'Ambrogio in all its artistic, architectural and historical glory; don’t miss the Chapel of San Vittorio off the right hand nave…even if you do have to pay to get in…it dates from the 4th-5th century A.D.! Besides, are you from UCLA? Royce Hall’s façade was inspired by the façade of this church. What is it like to hear the Mass in Latin? You can find out, here…they have one around 11 A.M. on Sundays…check the web site! Oh, and by the way, the Catholic churches in all of the diocese of Milan—the Catholic church’s biggest diocese—follow the rite established by Saint Ambrose about 400 years before the merging of the Roman and Gallic rites in the Carolingian period resulting in today’s Catholic rite (Without Saint Ambrose's insistence on Christianity's orthodox, rather than Arian, traditions, the history of Christianity, and hence the Occident, probably would have been radically different; almost the entire panoramic history of Christianity can be followed through the architecture and art works of this church) (http://www.basilicasantambrogio.it/, site in Italian)
--the Portrait of a Woman by Pollaiuolo at the Poldi Pezzoli Museum is lovely, and there are other lovely, but less famous, things there by famous and less famous artists, as well; the museum was opened to the public in the 19th century as a house museum featuring all the art and artifacts collected by the noble Poldi Pezzoli, but it was heavily bombed during WWII, so it was reconstructed principally as a “normal” museum (http://www.museopoldipezzoli.it/en, in English)
--the Museum of Science and Technology is far more interesting than the name implies; in addition to its fascinating range of developments, materials and machines of all kinds—there are even (small) remains of an ancient Roman ship, as well as a reassembled antique clock workshop and real submarine, planes and trains!—it also has large globes, frescoes and a freely adapted Renaissance copy of Leonardo's Last Supper (one of the ways we can imagine what the damaged parts of the fresco looked like), and, you also can see for yourself what a Renaissance monastery would have been like…the museum is housed in one, and the foundations of the ancient Roman imperial mausoleum over which it was built have been revealed in the courtyard (http://www.museoscienza.org/english/, in English)
--La Scala Theater: when there are no practice sessions going on, it is possible to view the inside of the opera house when visiting the theater's museum; if that’s your principal purpose for visiting this museum full of knick knacks once belonging to famous musicians and conductors, as well as music pieces, pianos, sketches for costumes, etc., and their portraits, ask at the ticket booth before paying (http://www.teatroallascala.org/en/index.html, in English)
--the relatively recent Diocesan Museum in the ex-cloisters of the church of Sant’Eustorgio (itself choc-a-bloc with wonderful lovely things, including the Renaissance Cappella Portinari); this museum offers religious art, including fragments from the 4th century A.D. sculpted wooden doors of Sant’Ambrogio, and often has lovely temporary exhibits (http://www.museodiocesano.it/storiaEng.asp?sez=1&link=1, site in English)
--the Archaeology Museum, set into the reworked Renaissance cloisters of the church of San Maurizio (see below), it offers not only a taste of Milan’s ancient Celtic and Roman past through art and artifacts, but—if you go out into the courtyard—you’ll also be able to see some of the structures once belonging to the ancient Roman circus, an imperial age addition to the earlier republican period city walls (fragments of the foundations of which are visible in the basement level of the museum); if you’re lucky enough, the polygonal tower (so polygonal that it looks round) is open: it was turned into a chapel in the Gothic period, and its frescoes, fairly recently restored, are only rarely available to the public (http://www.comune.milano.it/portale/wps/portal/CDM?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/wps/wcm/connect/contentlibrary/Per+Saperne/Per+Saperne/Museo+Archeologico/, in Italian...dear City of Milan Webmaster...shorten your link addresses!)
--the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum is one of Europe's most important and best preserved historic house museums; it has some very interesting pieces, including works by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, as well as by Giampietrino and Zenale, post-Leonardo masters, but its principal strong point lies in the fact that it is a "magic window" onto Milan's recent aristocratic past: each item has been replaced where the original owners intended it to be, so it is an authentic experience of the taste and noble life style of Milanese aristocracy at the end of the 19th century (http://www.museobagattivalsecchi.org, in English); the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum was one of the founding museums of the Circuit of Historic House Museums in Milan: http://www.casemuseo.it/en/ (in English)
Other equally important, but lesser known things, are:
--the church of San Maurizio, founded during the late Lombard, or early Carolingian, period (i.e., around 7th-8th century A.D.), the current building was started in 1503, finished about 20 years later, and is carpeted with marvelous frescoes, principally by Bernardino Luini, one of Milan's post-Leonardo masters, and his sons (http://www.tripadvisor.it/Attraction_Review-g187849-d591217-Reviews-Chiesa_di_San_Maurizio_al_Monastero_Maggiore-Milan_Lombardy.html)
--the Museo del Risorgimento, for Italian 19th century history buffs (http://www.museodelrisorgimento.mi.it/, in Italian)
--the Museo di Milano, for the curious: what was Milan like? Here there are painted views of how beautiful Milan once was, before they began covering the canals with asphalt and tearing down old buildings to make way for new (this latter aspect, however, typical of Milan's historical striving to be modern, so in itself is indicative) (http://www.rete800lombardo.it/museo-di-milano-presentazione, in Italian)
--Filarete's mid-15th century ground-breaking and influential hospital, now used as the main seat for Milan's state university humanities campus, Università degli Studi Milano; Filarete had planned a larger structure, but stayed in Milan only long enough to see the right hand / 15th century part (with the external porticoes) built until his Florentine fancy pants were no longer welcome by the local Lombard architects, who finished his building with some decidedly non-Florentine taste; the central part (where the main portal and large courtyard is) was built in the early 17th century, though the façade is “in style” with the earlier part; the left hand section—today a plain dark red—was added to the hospital by a private benefactor during the early 19th century Napoleonic period. Heavily bombed in WWII, the structure was converted into a university in the 1950s (http://www.unimi.it/ENG/)
--the Natural History Museum (http://www.comune.milano.it/dseserver/webcity/Documenti.nsf/webHomePage?OpenForm&settore=MCOI-6C5J9V_HP, in Italian)
--the Planetarium built by the famous architect, Portaluppi (http://www.comune.milano.it/dseserver/webcity/Documenti.nsf/webHomePage?OpenForm&settore=SVIY-5HNGA3_HP, in Italian)
--the Mondadori headquarters outside Milan, built by the same architect responsible for Brasilia: Oscar Niemeyer (http://www.architetturadelmoderno.it/scheda_nodo.php?id=193, in Italian)
--some of the art in public spaces also might be interesting (Arnoldo Pomodoro, il Sole, Piazza Meda; Claes van Oldenburg, l’Ago, Piazza Cadorna; Igor Mitoraj, Piazza Santa Maria del Carmine) as well as the unintentionally kitschy "Leonardo" horse, which—despite what the American donors say—isn’t really HIS horse, since we still don’t know what definitive form his life-sized model took, and he never executed the sculpture (today’s bronze version by Nina Akamu is appropriately placed in the piazza just in front of Milan’s horse racing stadium in the area called “San Siro”…a great place for this “white elephant”)
--a host of Milan's other churches, too numerous and too varied in their appeal to mention individually (O.K., I can’t resist: be sure to see Sant’Eustorgio with ancient origins, but the current structure principally from the Gothic and Pre- and Early Renaissance periods…O.K., I also can’t resist mentioning San Nazaro and San Simpliciano, both founded originally in the 4th century A.D., but both subject to rebuilding throughout the ages…San Nazaro, on Corso di Porta Romana, is fascinating because its now destroyed atrium butted up against a long covered portico in the street leading out from the republican era city gate, in the area of Piazza Missori, out and down this street headed in the general direction of Rome, hence the street’s name…the gate farther down in Piazza Medaglia d’Oro was built in the late 16th century, and was part of the Spanish Walls which once circumference and protected the city until torn down during the Austrian Hapsburg period in the 18th century)
--other scraps of Milan's historical monuments scattered throughout town: ruined bits of the ancient Roman baths in Corso dei Servi, the imperial palace in via Brisa; the foundations of the ancient arena in via Molino delle Armi; the foundations of part of the ancient Roman circus in, well, via Circo; the foundations of the ancient Roman granary under a building in via dei Bossi, and available only with special permission from the Beni Culturali office; an interesting medieval and Renaissance palazzo façade near the beginning of Corso di Porta Venezia, etc. The “Navigli” (canal system) which used to surround the whole city, but now survives only in the one area near Sant’Eustorgio (there are boat tours available, and it’s also one of the more popular night time areas for the young and young-at-heart). The only two gates still standing from the medieval period: the "porta nuova" at the end of via Manzoni (not to be confused with the "Porta Nuova" at the end of Corso di Porta Nuova) and the gate kitty corner to San Lorenzo (look at a map: these two gates are opposite one another, and will give you an idea of the size of the medieval city of Milan). At Piazza Medaglia d'Oro is the late 16th century gate, once part of the mid-16th century onwards "Spanish Walls"...the next larger circle, giving you an idea of the size of the city until the late 18th century. From the 16th century onwards, the swathes of buildings surviving "modernization" become more consistent, including the 19th century semi-circle, called Foro Bonaparte, around the city side of the Sforza Castle
It’s hard to stop!
See! Milan isn’t just a gray dull city for business!